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issue: August 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Plant Fire in Korea Begets Global Lithium Ion Battery Shortage

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A fire that shut down lithium battery plant has resulted in a global shortage of the batteries.

Web-exclusives (below):
• A Hydrogen Fuel Cell For Mobile Phones
• Mass-Produce Fuel-Cell Chargers

The Mar. 3, 2008, fire at LG Chem, the second largest South Korean battery maker, damaged several assembly lines that won't be completely repaired until later this year.

Lithium ion is used in a multitude of portable power markets and applications such as cellular devices, meters, laptops, military radios, power tools, and audiovisual equipment, among others. The technology represents the fastest growing rechargeable battery market, and Japanese and Korean firms, including Sony, Sanyo and Matsushita, LG, and Samsung hold about 70% of the market.

Dell and other PC makers are faced with the extended effects of the shortage, just they gear up for increased PC sales during the back-to-school season, followed by the peak-holiday sales season. In addition, demand for notebook computers increased substantially in 2008 as users increasingly eschew desktop PCs and turn to laptops. Dell increased prices for additional lithium-ion battery packs in an effort to preserve their supply. Asustek Computer CEO Jerry Shen said the company will have enough batteries to reach its 5 million unit shipment target for the year, but could have increased the target were it not for the battery troubles. Hewlett-Packard said it was "aggressively working" with other companies to ensure a steady supply. Notebook makers like Apple and Lenovo are not immediately expected to be impacted by the shortage as both use Sony-made lithium-ion packs.

The supply of batteries is expected to return to normal later this year, with battery makers significantly increasing production, according to Sung Fu-hsang, Chairman of Simplo Technology, the world's largest independent notebook battery manufacturer.

Some battery suppliers are proposing non-lithium ion solutions. Panasonic is offering its nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries (pictured), with several benefits that can make it a feasible short-term replacement for lithium ion. These power cells were developed to meet requirements for high energy levels (up to 1.2 nominal voltage), which is demanded by current electronic products. Other new power sources are under development (but will not be ready soon enough to impact the current shortage).

A Hydrogen Fuel Cell For Mobile Phones

Other new power sources are under development but will not be available soon enough to address the current shortage, which is expected to be resolved by year-end.

One is a research collaboration on miniaturized energy sources from the French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA) and STMicroelectronics NV (Geneva, Switzerland). The groups have unveiled a hydrogen fuel cell for mobile phones that aims to reduce dependency on the use of electrical power supplies to recharge batteries. The miniature fuel cell is made using microfluidic structures etched into the back surface of silicon and a reaction interface at the silicon surface. This works together with a hydrogen-filled cartridge, the size of a small cigarette lighter. Currently at the prototype stage, the final product is due to be commercialized by the end of 2009 or early 2010.

"Five years ago, a cell phone used 1 W of power while a 3G phone now uses from 3 - 5 watts. With the incoming generation of cell phones, if we do not change the battery, the autonomy will be reduced by one third, limiting access to multimedia services," said Didier Marsacq, director of CEA-Liten, the Laboratory for Innovation in New Energy Technologies and Nanomaterials.

Mass-Produce Fuel-Cell Chargers

Moscow-based Aspect Association, an organization working with a network of Russian technology companies, announced plans to mass produce fuel-cell chargers for laptop computers by the end of 2009. Aspect, the main state contractor for the development of portable fuel cells, intends to co-develop the units with U.S. partner Medis Technologies and by the end of next year manufacture 10,000 units per month in Russia. Medis, a fuel-cell developer based in New York, recently launched the 24/7 Power Pack, an alkaline-based fuel-cell recharger for handheld devices such as iPods and Blackberries. Medis also runs a mass production line through Celestica in Galway, Ireland that can turn out 1.5 million Power Paks per month. Laptops are next. Robert Lifton, Medis' CEO, said his company has already demonstrated the platform for making a fuel-cell charger for laptops, though hasn't commercially produced it. Aspect, which has been importing the Power Pack, aims to get Russian state funding to do so.


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